Listening to Emma Grey speak at a business event recently, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind this is a woman whose got it ‘sorted’. Calm, modulated, articulate and harbouring the uncanny ability to slam you with ‘aha’ moments, I sat in a quasi-meet-the-swami mode, undulating between the fact that this is just a regular Aussie mum like me, but also an author, an entrepreneur, and someone who might just have some ‘answers’.
Answers to what, you ask? Well… stress. Weight gain or loss. Lack of libido. Anxiety. Depression. Substance abuse. Juggling ninety balls a day and dropping eighty. Tension. Disconnectedness. Family issues. Exhaustion. Overwork. Confusion. Imbalance. Lack of the appropriate amount of time for hair-styling. Possibly even hair falling out.
If you can relate to any of the above things, you’re probably just a working mother. Or a working wife. Or a working single. No doubt, you’re female. And no doubt you, like an inordinate amount of Australian women, are struggling to fit it all in.
Enter calm and modulated Grey. A thirty-six-year-old mum of two primary school age children who lives in Jerrabomberra, just on the outskirts of Canberra, this woman may just have some of those answers. Grey is currently realising a dream to work from home and have the flexibility to fit in the things that matter most – and to do what she loves; what she calls her ‘paid passion’.
WorkLifeBliss is a consultancy business born of the success of Grey’s book – Wits’ End Before Breakfast – Confessions of a Working Mum (Lothian Books, 2005) – a book that resonated deeply with many mums around the country. Funny, honest, totally relatable, the book reveals snippets of the author’s hectic journey into parenting and career – a time relentlessly fraught with the modern-day question – am I doing the right thing, and how longer can I keep doing it?
Grey was working full-time in the Department of Defence with two children under five when the bones of Wits’ End Before Breakfast came together.
“I was also enrolled in a Masters Degree and used to write about the insanity of it all, as a combination diary/self-preservation measure,” Grey tells Australian Women Online.
“I’d send these diary entries around to my friends and family by email once a week. It wasn’t until one of my sagas was overheard in a conversation between two strangers on the sidelines at a children’s soccer match that it occurred to me that perhaps there was something in these stories… so I bundled them up and sent to them to the nearest publisher.”
Much to her delight, Emma’s book was taken on by Lothian (under her former name Robertson) and the feedback she’s since received has been astounding.
“I thought women might identify with the book, but wasn’t prepared for such an overwhelming response,” she admits, “I’ve had a lot of feedback from women who found it sheer relief to have someone ‘tell it like it is’ about parenting. I think there’s a conspiracy of silence sometimes – mums struggling behind closed doors while putting on a ‘public face’ that everything’s fine – and that’s not always helpful for the rest of us.”
Grey still remembers one of the everyday moments that propelled her to write so prolifically about her working mum role.
“After dropping my daughter at day-care – having her prised off my ankle – I fled to work, ripped the bumper bar off the car in the car park (I was blinded by tears), and was crying at my desk when I found myself accidentally consuming a Lieutenant Colonel’s salad because I was so distraught about being a bad mother that I could no longer recognise my own Tupperware,” laughs the author.
Grey admits that humour was vital when penning Wits’ End Before Breakfast. Every day seemed a parody and whenever something awful happened, she’d simply take it on the chin… and turn it into book fodder.
“I recall the time I was on the phone to my boss and my daughter held up a Thomas the Tank Engine near my ear, so that I could hear it whirring. Unfortunately, a long strand of my hair became entwined in its wheels until the train was firmly affixed to the top of my head, just as the appliance repairman landed on the doorstep – luckily with a screwdriver, which he used to unsnarl Thomas before retrieving an entire alphabet of magnetic letters from inside the door of the dishwasher.”
Such giggle-worthy anecdotes are rife in Grey’s book – but they also underpin a growing restlessness amongst modern women – a restlessness that is affecting our health, sanity and our life balance. In a nutshell, women are getting lost in the ride of providing for everyone else – of wanting it all, doing it all, and – in the end – wondering if it’s all worth it.
“We’re out to prove something that isn’t congruent with ‘real life’,” Grey admits, “Rather than say, ‘I’m a mum, and I have a career, so can’t do too much more than that’, we say, ‘I’m a mum, I have a career, and I’m volunteering in the tuckshop, signing up for the ballet concert sewing bee, joining the P&C, cleaning the house myself, baking the birthday cake from scratch and wearing knee-high boots because it’s quicker than waxing. And if someone calls, needing something, I’ll probably say yes before they’ve finished asking the question… because we can have it all, damn it!’”
Sound familiar? This kind of imbalance and how to readdress it has consumed Grey, who believes a much calmer approach is to imagine having it all, spread over the course of a lifetime – in flexible, manageable doses that can be enjoyed.
“I’ll sometimes ask my clients to rate on a scale of one to ten how much they’re truly enjoying their lives, rather than just ‘surviving’ them. Then we’ll look at making some simple changes to enhance things.”
The key concept of Grey’s work with WorkLifeBliss is simplicity. During her recent talk, I could feel the lips of an entire room of women curl and purse tightly when the author began speaking about how simple it is to restructure and rebalance our lives. How basic and easy. You could have mowed us all down with a feather when she proved just that through the course of the evening. It’s an irony that a well-balanced modern life can be steeped in so many fundamental thought patterns and actions – elements that hark back to when things were more simple.
“Despite some wistfulness for simpler times, I think we’ve got the better of both worlds nowadays,” Grey tells AWO. “We’re like kids in a candy shop, though – and when we have too much, it doesn’t seem so appealing anymore and we can make ourselves ill.”
Creating a blissful work life balance is clearly something Grey has innate talent in. Not only has she developed a comprehensive and astounding insight into making life healthier and happier, the author is impassioned to share her findings with other women – which is what inspired her to start WorkLifeBliss.
Whilst promoting her book in 2005, Grey began a series of talks to women on life balance and was astounded to consistently meet women who needed help with getting it all together’.
“The overwhelming majority of women I met seemed to be in various degrees of ‘drowning’. There was a time, five years ago, when I was one of them. I recall lying on my bed, publishing contract in one hand, divorce papers in the other – staring at the ceiling with acute glandular fever and thinking ‘what am I doing?’ Bit by bit, I clawed control back over my life, my family, my identity as a woman – the works.”
When Grey experienced how much richer my life could be, just by making some really simple thought pattern changes, she took the unnerving step of leaving her secure job in the public service to set up WorkLifeBliss. Since then, she has began helping other women transform their lives.
“I haven’t looked back for a second. If I won Powerball, all I’d change would be snazzier business cards… this is a passion.”
Essentially, WorkLifeBliss helps clients work out what they want and how to achieve it. Anything from finding passion for career or building tighter-knit families. Sometimes it’s about developing stronger personal and professional relationships or uncovering ‘me’ time, but overall, Grey believes her business is really about bringing together the things that matter – thriving careers, personal lives and families.
“I think an important step for women is to start thinking about ‘life design’ – to look closely at what choices will bring us the deepest levels of satisfaction across each part of our lives. Not only is this a very individual thing, but it’s something that morphs and grows and changes as we move through different stages. Being open to these changes, and to the opportunities and risks that they bring for our health, wellbeing, careers and relationships, is the key.”
A recurring theme that occurred when I witness Grey at a business event, was the ‘buts’ and ‘what-ifs’ posed by many women, who often feel ‘trapped’ in their frazzled lives. Having Grey point out basic concepts along the way, every one of us realised our life imbalance was mainly self-created – either by saying ‘yes’ to too many things, fearing we’re not good enough, repeating past patterns, getting hooked on being needed, giving in to guilt, or any of a number of other simple but usually deeply-embedded causes.
“When people say, ‘my life is crazy’, I’ll ask them what choices they made to cause this. It can be quite easy to let go of the things that are holding us back, once we understand what they are – and very liberating!”
There is a pure dichotomy between the meticulously researched and presented material Grey handed us at this event, and the sheer simplicity of it. The depth and thoroughness of the ideas behind her concepts honestly made me peep with glee. I will never forget the list she handed us – a list that helped us plan our lives from most important to least important. You can imagine my amusement and horror when I realised this entire list could have been reversed for me – what a slap in the face it was to see I’ve been living my life upside down.
Not any more! And you, too, can start living the right way up. Here is how Grey suggests you fill in 2010’s schedule (in order of importance):
- Buy a new diary, make a nice cup of tea and spend an hour or so going through the blank pages, ‘paying yourself first’.
- Schedule in all the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ events you’d love to experience in 2010. Think about what would be on your ‘bucket list’, and book in some experiences to look forward to.
- Book in those salsa dance classes or the jewellery-making workshops you were going to get around to but didn’t.
- Book in annual holidays (a third of Australians don’t take their annual leave) and tack on an extra leave day to long weekends to create regular ‘mini breaks’.
- Work out how you want to spend weekends and evenings. Set a ‘date night’ each week with your partner, even if you stay in – just to focus on each other, relax and have fun.
- Consider how many activities the children are doing and the implications on your stress levels, your finances, the family’s time together and opportunities for the kids to have ‘down time’.
- Schedule in some time for ‘you’. Set aside time to exercise, relax and wind down. Commit to these like you’d commit to a meeting.
- Ask yourself how you’ll handle the housework. If you work full-time, and your budget can stretch to a cleaner, consider this either as a regular arrangement or even once a term.
- Once you’ve gone through your diary like this, you’ll find you’re left with something approximating ‘normal working hours’. When you’ve got a dance class to get to by 5.30pm, you’ll become a lot more focussed and productive with your time at work.
As we are poised on the precipice of a new year, I am determined to take on much of what I have learned from Grey. Everything she teaches makes such blatant sense, it has given me a renewed feeling of power over the future of our family – and of my own life as a woman. Can I really have a life that includes the power trio – work, life and bliss? Yes, I can. If I release my expectations on what is deemed the perfect life – or the ‘perfect’ state of bliss – and allow life to unfold, imperfections and all. As Grey says:
“Bliss, for me, is wrapped up in family. It’s that sense that ‘all’s right with the world’, when the stars align and everyone in the family seems content with their lives, all at the same time… even if it only lasts a minute!”